Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Part 4: Hypertext

“The result is a loose federation of documents — many small pieces loosely joined. But in what has turned out to be simply the first cultural artifact and institution the Web has subtly subverted, the interior structure of documents has changed, not just the way they are connected to one another. The Web has blown documents apart.” — David Weinberger

We are so used to seeing “HTML” and “HTTP” as acronyms that it has probably been a while since you’ve seen the “HT” part spelled out. Hypertext is text with some words or phrases linked to other documents. It was the breakthrough for the web.

There are more web sites than ever. But there is also significant content in web applications and native apps. These apps will often have limitations on what can be displayed, only storing text and photos in a format that suits the particular app, not the loose structure that HTML allows.

For apps like Instagram that don’t have the flexibility of allowing HTML in post text, users use the one place a clickable link is allowed — in their user profile — and then mention it in a comment.

Anil Dash’s blogged about this convention and how it hurts the web:

We don’t even notice it anymore — “link in bio”. It’s a pithy phrase, usually found on Instagram, which directs an audience to be aware that a pertinent web link can be found on that user’s profile. Its presence is so subtle, and so pervasive, that we barely even noticed it was an attempt to kill the web.

Instagram is not alone. Most social networks have taken the rich expression of HTML, with inline links and photos, and simplified it down to just text and URLs appended at the end of a post. Twitter will auto-link pasted URLs, but won’t allow other linked text.

Snapchat and TikTok barely exist on the web at all. They are built on web technologies while relegating actual web browsers to the status of second-class citizens, only useful to funnel users into closed platforms behind native apps.

When content is inside an app, the content’s location becomes opaque. There might not be an obvious URL to that content. If there is no URL, there can be no emphasis on custom domain names, because there is no user-visible domain name at all.

Links and photos are a fundamental part of how the web is extensible and open. I’ll never forget the impact this first had on me, sitting at my old Mac Classic in 1994, dialed up to the web through a BBS gateway, tabbing through links to download the first photos from the Shoemaker-Levy comet.

That awareness of linking out to the wider world of text and photos was magic. It’s still possible on the web today, if we don’t lock down content behind apps that shun basic web technologies like HTML.

Next: Photography →